Bittersweet Taste of Exploitation: A Postscript
An immediate result of the foreign student-worker protests at Hershey’s Pennsylvania packing plant has been the launching of several investigations into the incident by both the State Department and the Department of Labor. Quoting political reporter Julia Preston: “a spokeswoman for the Labor Department, said inspectors had opened two investigations since Friday. One will look into the students’ claims of wage-and-hour violations…A team of four State Department officials arrived Wednesday in Hershey to interview students who engaged in the protest and others who continued to work, as well as their employers.” State Department officials said they would “focus on the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A., to make sure it had properly monitored the students’ working conditions.” OSHA inspectors will be investigating the safety aspects of working conditions. Furthermore, Hershey’s has asked the contractors running the packing plant to give the workers a week off with pay so that they could travel around and get to know something about this country. Several of the protestors have already done just that refusing to return to work, opting to go on tours of Pennsylvania and New York sponsored by labor unions.
There have been several misconceptions as to what are the real issues behind this protest. Some have tried to paint the problems here as a “failure of government” suggesting that the students where “hosed” as a result of government incompetence. However, as Ms. Preston revealed the students were recruited and their employment arranged by independent contractors, not the federal government: “About 120,000 students come to the United States each year on what are known as J-1 visas, which allow them to work for several months and then travel for a month as tourists…The students at the packing plant, who came from China, Romania, Ukraine, Nigeria and other nations, were employed through one of those agencies, the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A…” That said there is little evidence of “government” failure other than to have trusted the agencies to do the right thing by the student-workers. Needless to say, the State Department needs to revamp the J-1 visa program so as to eliminate this sort of abuse in the future. Professor Jennifer Gordon, who teaches labor and immigration law at Fordham University and who’s Op-Ed: “America’s Sweatshop Diplomacy” recently appeared in the New York Times said: “The America that the Hershey’s workers have seen is surely not the one the J-1 visa was created to promote. But perhaps it is the America we have become. Hershey’s business strategy is a microcosm of the downsizing and subcontracting that so many American companies have pursued during the past few decades in search of ever cheaper labor…Indeed, the J-1 program is attractive to employers because it is uncapped and virtually unregulated; companies avoid paying Medicare, Social Security and, in many states, unemployment taxes for workers hired through the program.” Thus, considering the aforementioned it’s more than clear where the blame for the unfortunate events at Hershey’s lay and to the extent that there is any government responsibility it is in trusting private contractors to represent the United States in the venue of foreign student exchanges. Clearly the Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A has failed and should not be trusted to run student-worker exchange programs in the future.
Some have tried to make the case that it was the rent, not the pay, that really caused the problems. However, this line of reasoning falls short of the facts and can’t be taken seriously. For one thing, if the students were adequately compensated, they wouldn’t have had a problem paying their rent in the first place. Secondly, according to Ms. Preston’s analysis of the student worker’s grievances’, “They said that after the council [Council for Educational Travel, U.S.A] deducted as much as $400 a month from their paychecks for rent, they did not earn enough to cover their expenses or to afford to travel, or even to earn back the up to $6,000 many had paid to obtain the visas.” If the students couldn’t even recoup the cost of their visa’s and ended up working for meager wages without any opportunity to interact with Americans outside of the workplace and enjoy legitimate cultural exchanges, how can this be considered anything other than exploitation? After all, meeting and interacting with Americans outside of work was an essential part of the bargain and the prime motivating factor for these students to come here in the first place. Does anyone really believe they were motivated to spend $6,000.00 for a visa so as to earn $8.35 an hour? Are these students supposed to net a financial loss so as to come to this country and work at jobs which can only be characterized as exploitation? Some have gone so far as to suggest that it was the unions who goaded the students into striking. Once again this doesn’t stand the test of basic logic either as the students wouldn’t have gone on strike if they we satisfied with their pay. This is particularly the case as they were short term employees whose reason for taking these jobs wasn’t to work in a chocolate factory, it was to earn money and see America while not at school. Thus these student-workers had no long term vested interest in working for Hershey’s and little reason to wish for better pay and benefits in the future. Those who have tried to deny that the student workers were cheated and shortchanged would do themselves a favor by looking a little bit further into the facts while at the same time reexamining their own particular logic and reasoning as to how this is anything but exploitation.
Lastly some have said that if the students are unhappy with their experiences here in the United States that perhaps they would have enjoyed a summer in the sweatshops of China instead. It goes without saying that that sort of logic is flawed on its face. The idea that these kids should substitute exploitation in China for a lesser degree of exploitation in this country misses the fact of what this type of program is supposed to achieve in the first place. It’s not supposed to be a comparative study in a global race to the bottom in working conditions. Its supposed to provide foreign students with a chance to see America at work and interact with the American people so that they go home with a positive image of this country that will work in the long run to counteract negative images and propaganda aimed at the United States and our way of life. It goes without saying that in today’s post Iraq war world, a positive image of the United States isn’t exactly a given. Those on the far right can go on saying “to hell with those who don’t like the U.S.A.”; but that sort of attitude isn’t going to do anything to further the interests of the United States either. It will only serve to further alienate those in the global community with whom we must continue to coexist.
British historian Timothy Garton Ash once said that if you look at the long haul of history what you see is that civilization has been dominated by eastern powers for a longer period of time than by those in the west. He went on to suggest that we are in the process of world power once again shifting to the east with the rise of China, India and the Asian Tiger economies. To the extent that these students are familiar with such a theory, and if they come from China they certainly are, then as a result of their experiences at Hershey, they will be more than convinced that there is little here worth repeating in their home countries. After all, thus far they’ve been denied the chance to get out and see what America is all about so what else do they have to go on but their experience at Hershey’s? Their only experience was one of labor exploitation. Surely that experience couldn’t and wouldn’t be one that left lasting positive impressions of what America is supposed to be. Anyone who ever worked in sales or marketing knows the old adage, “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” That said, the first impression of the United States and American society that these student workers received will probably be everlasting and to the detriment of the United States. Needless to say, that’s not a welcomed development.
Oh the Bittersweet Taste of Exploitation
U.S. Checks Conditions for Workers in Walkout by Julia Preston
America’s Sweatshop Diplomacy by Jennifer Gordon